Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Judy Garland's last musical for MGM floats four or five fine production numbers in a story that plays like something meant for Judy and Mickey Rooney, because that's exactly what it is. By 1950 Rooney was no longer a big name draw and Gene Kelly was enlisted to take his place. As anyone who's ever gotten near Judy Garland lore knows, by this time her career was in a shambles after her aborted trouble with Annie Get Your Gun. MGM seems to have undertaken Summer Stock to get one last big show out of the talented lady before letting her go.
It's almost better not to know these things, but even when seen in ignorance there's something a little off about Summer Stock ... most of its humor is flat to all but those in denial, as is the dated "let's put on a show" plotting. Yet a handful of superior numbers advance the production far into favorable status.
Country girl Jane Falbury (Judy Garland) is about to lose her farm, but talks the father (Ray Collins) of her spineless long-time fiancée Orville Wingait (Eddie Bracken) into advancing a tractor to make her work easier. But the barnyard is invaded by a summer stock company invited by Jane's spendthrift sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven). Before she knows it Jane is trading farm chores for barn space to put on a show. Jane also finds herself attracted to the show's director-producer Joe Ross (Gene Kelly), which is a problem, because he's Abigail's boyfriend.
Audiences responded enthusiastically to Summer Stock, indicating that Judy Garland still had public approval and affection to spare. But a curse still hangs over the movie -- after fourteen years sacrificing her youth and health to MGM, the studio decided it could no longer work with her. Weighing almost a fourth more than she had while struggling to perform in the Annie Get Your Gun debacle, Garland was probably at a healthy weight, but MGM showed its opinion by dressing her farmer character in "fat clothes" -- plenty of loose work shirts and rustic overalls. Her dresses are all dark but cannot hide the fact that she's no longer the great-looking, unhealthy skinny wreck she'd been for the second half of the 1940s.
This immediately becomes evident in the concluding "Get Happy" number. Across a cut, Garland suddenly seems to shed at least fifteen pounds, getting back the lean look and cute figure that plays so well on screen. It's obvious that she was trying to make good on Summer Stock, which doesn't flatter the studio's actions, at least in the published versions of MGM history. With the cost cutting measures and the pressure from New York for studio streamlining, I would imagine that the brass had it in mind to relieve themselves of Garland's hefty contract salary.
Summer Stock would be easy to imagine as a 1943 Garland and Rooney production, and that's its main fault. Its mechanics are even simpler than shows like Babes on Broadway: Save the farm, put on a show, ditch the loser love interests so the leads can get together. Neither dedicated pro showman Kelly nor farm hayseed Garland have any intention of being the stars, no sir ... events force them to rise to the occasion. Why, Jane Falbury's aunt was a wild entertainer, you see, and darned if Jane isn't some kind of natural dancer. She's kept her voice in shape by singing in the shower! We can see Ma and Pa Kettle losing their sense of humor over these creaky plot ideas.
Part of the lack of enthusiasm for Summer Stock is the lazy way the George Wells - Sy Gomberg script abuses the supporting players. Amusing personality Eddie Bracken and so-so MGM contract player Gloria DeHaven both play unfunny, unpleasant jerks so as to make Garland and Kelly seem all the more virtuous for dumping them. Marjorie Main and Phil Silvers get screen time when an easy laugh is needed. Hans Conreid is a one-note Broadway snoot, and poor Carleton Carpenter is shoehorned in with minor expositional duty, as if the studio no longer had an interest in him and just plunked him into the first open slot.
The music in general fares much better, with a short list of numbers making Summer Stock well worth checking out. The show kids break up the locals' stuffy square dance, a move that seems mean-spirited until Kelly and Garland face off in sort of a dueling dance challenge that's both simple and refreshing. Kelly and Phil Silvers do a dumb-hicks song routine called "Heavenly Music" that has them wearing oversized Hobbit-like feet and blacked-out teeth, and bumbling like the country wolf in the Tex Avery cartoon. Kelly does his own minimalist version of Fred Astaire's novelty numbers, the once in which he dances with an inanimate object like a hat rack or some animated shoes. Alone on the stage, Kelly finds a squeaky floorboard and a noisy newspaper and uses them to add percussion enhancement to his impromptu tap-shuffling.
Naturally, the rather primitive-looking revue we see in rehearsal is transformed on the night of the big do-or-die show. The stage suddenly grows a slick floor, elaborate scenery and razzle-dazzle costumes sprout from nowhere and Carleton Carpenter's one-man lighting turns into a full MGM crew effort. The show looks more like the Follies Bergère than Yahoo, Indiana.
The "Get Happy" number really looks like it belongs in a different movie. It's on a higher plane both stylistically and musically, and it became yet another Judy Garland miracle. Instead of leaving MGM as a failure who fell apart and couldn't finish a movie, she goes out on a career high. Indeed, the altered tuxedo look with a jazzy hat over one eye would be her chosen image for fifteen more years of stage and television appearances, as well as key numbers in A Star is Born.
Warners' DVD of Summer Stock looks great and there's no doubt that fans of Judy Garland will have no gripes about it. The color is fine on this mostly interior stage film, where a barnyard tree at 6 a.m. throws five shadows on the ground. I only saw one questionable shot, in which the red in Gloria DeHaven's pouting lips seemed off-register. The mono audio track is rich and free of distortion.
The featurette docu this time is sort of a toss up, wisely taking the high road in regard to reporting Miss Garland's health problems. In the course of one year she goes from skeleton weight to almost plump and back down to bantam heft, yet we're told than that she 'got tired' and had to take a break in filming. With little really presentable testimony from the interviewees (Saul Chaplin makes a welcome appearance) we're stuck with Gloria DeHaven telling us her character's motivation, while the narrator assures us that "everyone on the set was there to support Judy." I'm sure they were, but we're never told why they were needed. The docu does stress Gene Kelly's well-documented loyalty to the woman who helped him get his start just eight years earlier. Like the other new featurettes in the Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory series, this one blows up flat film clips to stretch across an enhanced image, resulting in some really ugly visuals. If they try this approach again, it would really be wise to remaster the clips from HD to retain a reasonable look -- I'm sure these were flagged by quality control!
Warners also throws in a Tex Avery cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, a cat versus bird violence-fest that begins with a riff on the word gags in the earlier Symphony in Slang. A Pete Smith Specialty short subject is also included, plus both a teaser and a trailer for the main feature. An outtake song called Fall in Love is offered as an audio-only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Summer Stock rates:
Supplements: New featurette Summer Stock: Get Happy!, MGM cartoon: The Cuckoo Clock, Pete Smith specialty short Did'ja Know?, Audio-only bonus: outtake song "Fall in Love", Trailer, Teaser
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson